The Late Great Planet Hollywood

The book was a global phenomenon and inspired sequel after sequel until millions rallied around the apocalyptic cry, "Don't be left behind!"

True believers handed copies to friends and warned strangers about the Second Coming. Evangelists said the books would convict sinners. It would have made a great movie, except that William E. Blackstone's "Jesus Is Coming" came out in 1878, before Hollywood was born.

"These books were very, very popular. ... They gave evangelists a new weapon in the war for souls," said Baptist historian Timothy Weber, author of "Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1982."

"If you read the sermons from back then, it's clear that the great revival preachers were using the same kinds of lines. They were saying, 'Christ could return before I finish this very sentence! Are you ready? What will happen to you if your loved ones vanish into heaven?' ... You heard this all across America. They were saying, 'Don't be left behind!' "

Today, these apocalyptic visions are alive and well, as the thriller "Left Behind" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins leaps from mall bookstores into movie theaters. The first eight books in the planned 12-book opus have sold 25 million copies, with audio and kids editions selling 11 million more.

The movie -- produced for a mere $17 million -- blends snippets of "Independence Day" warfare and Bible conference plot twists. Secular critics are slamming it, with the Washington Post calling the film a "blundering cringefest." Some Christians have cautiously called it a small step forward for religious entertainment. Truth is, parts of "Left Behind" are so bad it could become a hip classic, a fundamentalist "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

One thing is certain: the 700 churches and businesses that invested $3,000 each to help Cloud Ten Pictures distribute the movie did so in an attempt to win converts.

Belief in the Second Coming of Christ is an ancient doctrine. But in the 19th Century, John Nelson Darby, Blackstone and other "premillennial dispensationalists" began dividing world history into a complicated series of covenants and "dispensations." They believed Jesus would "rapture" believers up into heaven before a seven-year time of tribulation, followed by an apocalyptic battle between good and evil and Christ's victorious return. This "rapture" concept was especially popular with evangelists.

"Until then," explained Weber, "all preachers really had was the threat of unexpected death, the whole idea of asking, 'If you died tonight, would you be ready to meet God?' Well, that's serious business, but people get used to the idea that they might die. ... The idea of a mysterious, secret rapture took things to a completely different level. How do you debate that?"

After grasping this central image, many converts graduate into a labyrinthine school of prophecy built on highly literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation, Daniel and other mysterious Bible passages. This approach infuriates traditional scholars, yet has long intrigued spiritual seekers -- especially in the age of mass media and paperback theology. In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson built a publishing empire on "The Late Great Planet Earth," one of the biggest non-fiction hits of that decade.

Dispensationalism has it all. It offers a doctrinal system that claims to address everything from Y2K to OPEC, from Darwin to the United Nations, from Russian nuclear strategy to how many Israeli jets can land on the head of a pin. It also packs an emotional punch. Adults raised in homes steeped in this worldview always have childhood stories to tell about frightening moments when they asked: Where is everybody? Have I been left behind?

These images make sense when fleshed out in sermons and books that provide lengthy passages to explain complicated historical references and obscure symbols. But outsiders will struggle to read between the pictures in "Left Behind: The Movie."

"This may turn into a tribal ritual for people who have already bought into this whole system" of beliefs, said Weber. "You have to wonder if this movie will work as evangelism, in this day and age. ... There's going to be a lot of head scratching going on out there in movie theaters."